Can LTE broadcast make it possible for us to watch live football on our phones without the network falling over?

When I’m on my deathbed and asked if there’s anything I regret, I’ll know exactly what to say: I wish I hadn’t spent so much time writing about mobile broadcast technologies.

There was a period around 2008 when the industry believed that watching TV on mobile was the next big thing. Since 2.5G was the bandwidth order of the day back then, delivering this vision through mobile data was deemed a no go. So the only way to achieve it would be through some variation of traditional TV broadcast – and to have mini aerials embedded inside handsets.

   As you know, mobile broadcast TV never materialised. The handsets were horrible, the rights were expensive. But more fundamentally, it was the wrong tech at the wrong time.

Now this will stun you, the industry couldn’t agree on how to do this. Instead, vendors developed a bunch of competing standards with long acronyms. I know – amazing isn’t it?

In Korea there was DNB, In Japan ISDB-T. In Europe we had DVB-H, while in the US Qualcomm pushed out MediaFLO. Oh the hours I spent writing about this stuff when I could have been learning the oboe or conversing with my children.

As you know, mobile broadcast TV never materialised. The handsets were horrible, the rights were expensive. But more fundamentally, it was the wrong tech at the wrong time. As 3G took hold, people discovered the joy of short form video content (mostly YouTube). They didn’t need broadcast – and operators were very keen to encourage video snacking as a means to selling data tariffs.

But then, in one of these historical ironies that lazy journalists (me) love, along came Netflix and ESPN and Sky and suddenly these very same consumers realised they actually did want long form mobile TV. Exactly the kind of long form TV that DVB-H was designed for – and 3G was certainly not.

All those people watching Breaking Bad on the train is putting immense strain on the networks. According to Ericsson, global mobile data traffic is forecast to grow ten-fold by 2021, with video accounting for 70 per cent of it. It says Netflix’s share of video traffic can reach as high as 20 per cent in some markets.

So what’s the answer? You can guess. I mentioned it earlier.

But this time around there won’t be little aerials inside mobile handsets. Rather, the solution is one way data streaming. And it’s already here. It’s called LTE Broadcast.

The tech was unveiled in 2013 and will be commercially launched in the US next year. LTE Broadcast is based on evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (eMBMS), and enables the same content to be sent to a large number of subscribers at the same time. That’s different from the current model, which sees the same content being unicasted to every viewer.

The latter puts huge pressure on the network. LTE Broadcast is far more resource-efficient. Streams require much less bandwidth and operators can even send content overnight – viewers can store the content and watch it when they are ready.

It all sounds great. Technically, it is. But does it fit with current viewing habits? Let’s face it, we’re watching less and less scheduled TV. Apart from sport and the odd reality TV show, everyone is watching content at their own convenience.

Multicast also runs counter to prevailing models for advertising. The whole point of the current programmatic approach is to serve ads tailored to individual users. If all users are receiving the same broadcast stream, that can’t happen.

That said, it’s a mistake to assume broadcast LTE is all about video. Operators can stream anything they like with it. They could deliver a firmware update – and not just to people’s phones but to millions of M2M products. They could distribute radio, podcasts, traffic information and maybe even digital signage.

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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Opinion is divided on the tech’s prospects. Some pundits are extremely sniffy. However, pilots are already under way. Ericsson used it to stream multiple broadcasts of a footy match as the Borussia Mönchengladbach Football Stadium, while TIM, Samsung and Qualcomm broadcast a live concert by singer Max Gazzè at Milan’s World’s Fair. Reports say 20 trials are taking place globally by several major mobile network operators and partners such as the BBC.

No doubt, there will be much to see (and announcements to be perused) at MWC in a few weeks’ time.

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